Since the 1902 première of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, enquiring minds have tied themselves in knots over the identity of the mysterious Mélisande and her hazy dealings with the ruling family of the fictional kingdom of Allemonde. But David Pountney banishes all ambiguity in his production for Welsh National Opera. He summons up a hulking creature with the head of a bull, who drags a giant sac onstage at the top of Act 1, out of which wriggles a sexy blonde in a bloodstained petticoat. By the final curtain, Mélisande – mezzo Jurgita Adamonytė, with a voice like smoky heather honey – has had carnal relations with every member of the royal family except her mother-in-law. This includes a kiss and a tickling session with her pre-pubescent stepson, Yniold (played by the grown-up Rebecca Bottone).

Jurgita Adamonytė (Mélisande) and Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) © Clive Barda
Jurgita Adamonytė (Mélisande) and Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas)
© Clive Barda

When Mélisande is on her deathbed in Act 5, the sorrowful King Arkel, her grandfather-in-law, describes her as “un petit être si tranquille, si timide et si silencieux” (such a quiet little creature, so timid and so silent). Either the king is delusional (very possible) or Pountney has taken great liberties with the character of Mélisande.

There is no denying Mélisande’s mendacity and manipulativeness, whether portrayed as the clichéd femme fatale or the victim of human traffickers. At first, when the depressive Prince Golaud (Christopher Purves) stumbles upon her weeping in the forest and she, with the voice of an angel, tells him she is running from some brutes, you wouldn’t have found a single soul in the audience unmoved to leap to her aid.

Yet Adamonyté avoided caricature, portraying Mélisande as a creature of instinct, both innocent and cunning. Suspicions that she may not be human are heightened by her affinity for water. The oppressive set design – darkly magnificent, apart from the giant skeleton that hangs over it like a bad Hallowe’en joke – is dominated by a pool of water in which Mélisande is forever splashing or rolling around. By the end of nearly every scene she’s waterlogged. The other characters slosh through the pool on occasion, but they’re all wearing wellies whereas Mélisande is mostly barefoot. This is certainly suspicious and suggests she’s either a naiad or a rare alien life form capable of singing beautifully when dripping wet.

Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) and Jurgita Adamonytė (Mélisande) © Clive Barda
Jacques Imbrailo (Pelléas) and Jurgita Adamonytė (Mélisande)
© Clive Barda

Mélisande is generally blamed for wreaking havoc in the royal family of Allemonde but by the looks of it, they were a pretty scary, dysfunctional lot before she popped up. Pountney’s staging brilliantly reinforces this. Family thrones resemble electrocution chairs. And the kingdom seems to be about as well run as modern-day Syria, beset by endless wars, beggars inhabiting nearby caves, prisoners chained in the castle’s subterranean vaults, peasants dying of starvation at the castle doorstep. This should not surprise us – for King Arkel believes in destiny, not action. There is an undercurrent of despair and resignation in bass Alfred Reiter’s fine performance, which only a heavy petting session with Mélisande can relieve.

Golaud, who was already suspicious of Mélisande’s growing affection for brother Pelléas, shows up while Granddad and Mélisande are going at it – which drives him into a rage. (That he ends up murdering Pelléas but spares the old man seems inconsistent.) Lusty baritone Purves limned Golaud’s emotional swings with compelling clarity, his battering of the heavily pregnant Mélisande as believable as his tender regard at their first encounter and his remorse at her deathbed.

Jurgita Adamonytė (Mélisande) and Christopher Purves (Golaud) © Clive Barda
Jurgita Adamonytė (Mélisande) and Christopher Purves (Golaud)
© Clive Barda

The appealing Jacques Imbrailo, too, in the role of Pelléas, made a convincing transformation from skittish princeling to gallant lover. He rose above sillier moments, like the staging of the hair-combing scene akin to a shampoo-advert-gone-wild. Imbrailo and Adamonyté’s singing alone provided ample magic.

Magical, too, are Debussy’s evocations of the chilly castle, forbidding forest, caves and water features. WNO’s fine orchestra ushers in changing landscapes, fickle weather patterns and human emotions. Conductor Lothar Koenigs expertly shepherded the instruments who wander off to explore this menacing landscape in cliques frequently masterminded by oboe, flute or horn. Even the infrequent tutti passages often felt hushed yet luminous, reinforcing the dreamlike quality of the narrative, occasionally at odds with the bombastic production.

The final scene, however, is a stroke of genius. Mélisande gives birth and promptly expires, whisked off by a posse of handmaids in black. Mother-in-law Geneviève (the steely-voiced Leah-Marian Jones), who has been cradling Mélisande’s newborn in her arms, suddenly unfurls the baby blanket to release a cloud of ash. Geneviève appears to have snuffed out Mélisande’s baby, in an act of revenge against the siren who destroyed her family. But Mélisande’s overlords have the final word. The monster from the first scene reappears. He deposits another squirming sac centerstage from which a fluttering hand emerges as the curtain falls.